Set Pieces Analysis

Sebastian Giovinco: Master of the Free Kick by Harrison Crow

When Sebastian Giovinco earned himself a free-kick just outside the penalty box on Monday night it felt as though fate was serving up one of those great moments. Ninety seconds later, as the 72nd minute expired, Giovinco delivered on the set-up by sending a curled ball over the half-hearted leap of the Red Bulls' defensive wall. It went barely above the head of roaming fullback Michael Murillo, goalkeeper Luis Robles couldn't move to his right fast enough, and Toronto was thrust into the lead in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The goal was amazing and the moment was a big one for a team on the road. As mentioned shortly afterwards on the broadcast and later repeated on seemingly every facet of social media, Seba has now scored more set piece goals than any other player since his arrival to Major League Soccer in 2015.

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Some Facts about Corner Kicks by Matthias Kullowatz

I find myself getting worked up for corner kicks. Whether it's anxiety because the opponent is about to whip one into the Timbers' box, or hope because the Timbers are about to do the same to the opponent. There is a chance that corner kick will result in a goal, so perhaps my feelings are justified. However, statistics don't find corner kicks nearly as exciting. In 2013, our data shows that the 3,185 corner kicks taken led to just 1,110 shots, 258 of which were on target and 80 of which found the back of the net. That means that only one-third of corner kicks ever produced shots, and the finishing rate on those shots was just 7.2 percent--compared to the league's typical finishing rate of about 10 percent in 2013. Though shots from corners tended to be struck closer to goal, they also tend to be taken with the head, which is the least efficient body part for finishing. In the end, just one of 40 corner kicks could be found in the back of the net (2.5%).

For comparison's sake, let's take a look at how often other possessions lead to goals. Thanks to Alex at Tempo-Free Soccer, we can estimate that an average team gets about 4,500 possessions in a season. Here's how those 4,500 possessions end for a league-average team.

End in… Possessions Shots Shots/Poss Goals Goals/Poss Finish%
Corner 170 60 0.353 4.3 0.025 7.2%
Attacking 3rd* 2,030 375 0.180 40.0 0.019 10.7%

We can see that, while corner kicks produced about twice as many shots per possession than typical attacking-third possessions, they only led to about 25% more goals per possession due to packed boxes and low finishing rates. But not all attacking-third possession are equal, and it seems as though many of the possessions that lead to corners come from attacking-third possessions that are deeper in the opponent's territory. As the attacking-third possessions get closer and closer to goal, they probably become more dangerous than corner kicks. It may be more correct to say that teams don't earn corners, but rather, they settle for corners.

These numbers aren't as precise as I'd like, but they still sobered me up a little for corner kicks. But no promises that I can keep my cool if the Timbers are facing a corner in the waning seconds stoppage time.

*Teams typically lose possession on bad passes about 89 times per match, and about 43.5 of those instances occur in the attacking third according to OPTA data. This led to a 48.8-percent estimate of possessions ending in the final third.

Rosales, not Dempsey, is the clear choice for Seattle's set-piece crosses by Drew Olsen

In Seattle’s 2-1 loss to Portland on Saturday, Clint Dempsey took all of the Sounders’ attacking set-pieces in the first half. He was impressive with his free kick shots on goal, clipping the crossbar and forcing Donovan Ricketts into multiple saves. But his corner kicks left much to be desired. Mauro Rosales subbed on in the 63rd minute and took the remainder of the set-piece crosses and created more chances. With Lamar Neagle suspended for yellow card accumulation and Seattle needing goals in leg two, Rosales seems likely to start. Requisite warning about small sample sizes aside, based off of the results in leg one, the data suggest Sigi Schmidt would be wise to let Rosales take over set-piece crossing duties in the second leg.

Here's how Dempsey’s nine corners and one free kick cross went in leg one:

DempseyLeg1FKs

3rd minute corner: To the near post, cleared by Diego Chara 6th corner: Near post, cleared by Will Johnson 20th corner: Near post, cleared by Will Johnson 25th corner: Near post, cleared by Chara 32nd corner: Near post, cleared by Chara 38th corner: Top of the six yard box, cleared by Pa-Moudou Kah 38th corner: Top of six, cleared by Kah 39th free kick: Cross from 18 yards out on the wing to the top of the six, cleared by Futty Danso 45th corner: Near post, punched clear by Ricketts

In the second half, Rosales took all three Seattle corners and two free kick crosses:

RosalesLeg1FKs

68th minute corner: To the penalty spot, shot by Djimi Traore, saved by Ricketts 69th corner: Top of six, Headed cross by Dempsey  blocked by Zemanski and eventually caught by Ricketts 82nd free kick: Cross from 38 yards in the center to the penalty spot, cleared by Danso 86th free kick: Cross from 28 yards on the wing to the edge of the penalty box, headed by Shalrie Joseph across the box 87th corner: Penalty spot, Headed shot by Dempsey off of the crossbar and out

In summary: Dempsey had 10 set-piece crosses, none of which reached a Seattle teammate. Rosales had five set-piece crosses, four of which found a teammate in the box, and three of which led to shots.

As you can tell, it was a tale of two halves. In the first, Dempsey’s crosses rarely cleared the first defender, and none found another Sounders player. In the second half, four of Rosales’ five crosses created chances, two off of the head of Dempsey himself.

If Seattle is going to win at Jeld-Wen Field on Thursday, they’ll need to do better with their crosses. Based on their chances in game one, it looks to be in the Sounders' best interest to allow Rosales to take the free kick crosses in game two. Not only did his crosses create better chances than Dempsey in game one, but Deuce seems to be more dangerous getting on the end of crosses than he is at taking them.